Mar. 11, 2007

The Taking

by Anne Pierson Wiese

SUNDAY, 11 MARCH, 2007
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Poem: "The Taking" by Anne Pierson Wiese, from Floating City: Poems. © Louisiana State University Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Taking

In the morning on my way to the subway
I pass disemboweled trash bags
at the curb, in front of the big building
down the block. You can tell how people dug things out
overnight by street light, or in the drizzle-lit dawn,
carrying some away, but others only a certain
distance — maybe ten steps, maybe fifty yards — before
deciding upon inspection that after all they
were not worth the taking. A child's stained pink sweatshirt hung
neatly on a fence, a rusty saucepan like a hat
on a hydrant, a bundle of old magazines
rippled by the damp on the hood of a parked car —
each item taken carefully and as carefully
dismissed, for reasons known only to those who disappear.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Mary Shelley (books by this author) published her Gothic horror novel, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, on this day in 1818.

It's the birthday of Douglas Adams, (books by this author) born in Cambridge, England (1952). He's the author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979).

It's the birthday of the bandleader Lawrence Welk, born in Strasburg, North Dakota (1903). At the height of his career he was, after Bob Hope, the second-wealthiest performer in show business.

It was on this day in 1918 that the first cases of what would become the influenza pandemic were reported in the U.S. when 107 soldiers got sick at Fort Riley, Kansas.

It was the worst pandemic in world history. The flu that year killed only 2.5 percent of its victims, but more than a fifth of the world's entire population caught it, and so it's estimated that between 50 million and 100 million people died in just a few months.

Historians believe at least 500,000 people died in the United States alone. That's more than the number of Americans killed in combat in all the wars of the 20th century combined. Usually, the flu would have been most likely to kill babies and the elderly, but the flu of 1918 somehow targeted healthy people in their 20s and 30s. And it was an extremely virulent strain. In the worst cases, victims' skin would turn dark red, and their feet would turn black.

No one is sure exactly how many people died, because it wasn't even clear at the time what the disease was. World War I was currently under way, and there were rumors that German soldiers had snuck into Boston Harbor and released some new kind of germ weapon. One of the strangest aspects of the pandemic in this country was that it was barely reported in the media. President Woodrow Wilson had passed laws to censor all kinds of news stories about the war, and newspaper editors were terrified of printing anything that might cause a scandal.

So as the flu epidemic spread across the country. In large cities, people were dying of the flu so rapidly that undertakers ran out of coffins, streetcars had to be used as hearses, and mass graves were dug. The newspapers barely commented on it. In the fall of 1918, doctors tried to get newspapers to warn people in Philadelphia against attending a parade. The newspapers refused. In the week after the parade, almost 5,000 Philadelphians died of the flu.

Among the writers affected by the flu pandemic was Katherine Anne Porter, who grew so sick with the disease that her family had already arranged her funeral before she managed to recover. The novelist and critic Mary McCarthy got on a train with her parents on October 30, 1918. Her father died of the flu before their train reached Minneapolis. Her mother died a day later. The novelist William Maxwell lost his mother to the flu that year. Maxwell later said that all the novels he went on to write were inspired by that loss.

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